On May 7, 2009, CATS sponsored a program at the Long Island Library Conference titled “Looking Beyond the Clouds: Enhancing Library Services through Social Tagging.” The program was presented by Emily Clasper of Suffolk Cooperative Library System. It was a great program, and was attended by about 150 people.
Although users of services such as Twitter, Flickr and Delicious may find tagging to be second nature by this time, many of us are still not quite sure what it is that tagging represents. Tagging is starting to show up now in many places that librarians might not expect to see it—on the New York Times website for instance, or on the online version of the Suffolk County Catalog. The bottom line is that tagging is here to stay, and while it does have its drawbacks, it also has a number of positive features.
Emily did a good job of explaining how all of this fits in to a librarian’s world. She started by explaining the differences between a taxonomy (we’re all familiar with how this works) and a folksonomy (this is where tagging comes into play). Whereas taxonomy is authoritative, hierarchical, and highly structured, folksonomy has no formal structure, is user-generated and evolves out of consensus. As information professionals, we probably tend to think that detailed, controlled, structured descriptions are the way to go, that might not always be the case. We all know of the difficulties that users can have to use a controlled vocabulary such as Library of Congress subject headings. Although keyword searching can help with that, it’s not always enough. A user-generated set of tags could make it much easier for library users to find what they’re looking for using vocabulary they’re familiar with.
Another important reason to consider turning to user-generated tags to describe online content has to do with the tremendous amount of new information being added to the web all of the time. Each week, millions of new messages, videos, and pictures are added to millions of sites by users from all around the world. There is simply no way for an authoritative body to classify all of this new information. Thus, enabling content creators to classify their own information, while perhaps not a perfect solution, at least provides some means of intelligent description.
Emily finished up her presentation with a discussion of some of the emerging trends in tagging. These include “automanual folksonomies” (combining automated and manual tagging), geo-tagging, and mobile tagging. Altogether, it was an excellent and thought-provoking session on the subject. Click here to view Emily’s Power Point presentation.